If you thought other weddings you’ve been to had a lot of traditions, just wait until you attend your first military wedding. With hundreds of years' worth of customs, specific dress codes, and even requirements for invitation wording, there’s etiquette to navigate that you may not have seen before.
We called upon Amber Chaib, a US Navy Veteran, to break down what you should expect and offer insight that will make both planning and attending a military wedding a breeze.
Meet the Expert
Read on for answers to the most common questions about military weddings.
- What is a military wedding? To have a military wedding, at least one of the people getting married must be enlisted in active duty or be an officer or cadet at a military academy. While there are some etiquette guidelines that must be followed (explained below), most of the wedding ceremony and reception adhere to the couple's personal, cultural, and religious preferences.
- What should I wear to a military wedding? If members of the wedding party or other guests are also members of the military, they should be advised as to what the bride and/or groom will be wearing, and their attire should be the same level of formality. The uniforms themselves will vary from branch to branch, but the formality of the uniforms should be the same. Chaib adds that both veterans and retirees of the military are able to wear their Service Dress Uniforms for weddings and other special occasions of the same caliber. Guests who are not in the military should wear respectful clothing that matches the dress code and formality of the event.
- How long is a military wedding ceremony? This depends on the couple's personal, cultural, and religious preferences and the type of ceremonial rituals they choose to partake in.
- Should I bring a gift? Again, this would depend on the couple's personal, cultural, and religious preferences. Look to the invitation for directions regarding gifts.
Below, learn all about traditions plus what to plan for and expect at a military wedding ceremony.
Specific Wording on Invitations
Both on the invitation and when addressing envelopes, if the military personnel’s rank is captain or higher in the Army or lieutenant senior grade or higher in the Navy, their title should appear before their name. For example: Captain Michael E. Brown, United States Marine Corps. A lower rank should be listed after the personnel’s name. For example: Andrew White, Ensign, United States Navy. “Mr.” or "Mrs." should not be used to refer to any personnel on active duty.
Seating Based on Military Status and Rank
During the ceremony, commanding officers should sit near the front, either with or directly behind the couple’s families. At the reception, military members should be seated by rank (captains with captains, sergeants with sergeants, etc.). Military personnel may also be seated together at a table of honor near the head table.
A Bride or Groom in Uniform
If either or both partners are in the military, they have the option of wearing a full ceremonial dress instead of civilian clothing. For the groom, this might be his dress whites (in the summer) or dress blues (in the winter). For the bride, she may opt to wear her ceremonial uniform or may instead choose a traditional wedding dress. If either is an officer, his or her evening dress uniform is incredibly formal and should be reserved for a white-tie affair, while dinner or mess dress uniforms are appropriate for black-tie events. Dress blues are the best choice for a wedding with a cocktail or formal dress code.
"The day someone enters the military, they took a deliberate oath, swearing to protect and defend the United States with their life," says Chaib. "On their wedding day, in uniform, they are making another absolute vow. A wedding in uniform further amplifies its significance."
The Rules of Grooming
If the groom chooses to be wed in full military uniform, he will need to adhere to the unique regulatory standards that are held by each branch. This includes universal grooming standards, such as shaving. Chaib explains that all men in uniform must be clean-shaven, and these same rules apply to any vets or retirees planning to don a uniform.
"If you're a woman marrying a male retiree or vet with a sexy beard and want him to wear his uniform, he's going to have to get rid of it again," she says. "I think we're all aware that men can get pretty attached to their beards, so that may or may not require some negotiation. However, the opportunity to again wear a uniform that holds so much national and personal significance may be a major motivation."
The Groom and Groomsmen Won't Have Boutonnieres
Boutonnieres are not to be worn with uniforms, no matter the formality. Any military decorations they might have will serve as the "boutonniere" in this case. The bride may carry a bouquet, even if she opts to wear her uniform instead of a traditional wedding dress.
The Saber Arch Exit
If one or both of the newlyweds are commissioned officers, they may exit the ceremony beneath an archway of sabers held by other military members, known as the Arch of Sabers. If the partners are noncommissioned officers or enlisted personnel, they will instead use a variation known as the Arch of Rifles. The arch serves as a pledge of loyalty to the couple by their military family and often ends with the final two military members lowering their sabers to prevent the couple from passing.
If the bride is not in the military, she is then ceremonially tapped on the behind with a saber as a way of welcoming her into her partner’s military family, and then the couple is allowed to pass. "The bride is being welcomed into a much larger family, beyond the in-laws and shared bloodlines," says Chaib. "Our community, which is about seven percent of the US population is an epic, extended family including all races, backgrounds, and religions who were required to work together—often through unusual and extreme conditions, which creates a unique bond between us and provides a certain perspective on life."